December 7, 2012

Hail South Africa

They are the deserved world No. 1, and this may well be their best team in a generation

While some of us in India dramatise the effect of 22 yards of turf, cricket has shown this week that when armed with a bit of spirit, home advantage isn't the overwhelming force it is sometimes made out to be. England and New Zealand, hardly the best travellers traditionally, overpowered what were once fairly strong garrisons. And having defended stubbornly in Adelaide, South Africa vanquished Australia in Perth, playing the kind of cricket that must make other nations queasy. It has been another magnificent season of Test cricket.

Not one of the three visiting teams had to huff and puff to sneak a result in; they didn't win by a nose, more by a couple of lengths. New Zealand's very impressive young core of Kane Williamson, Trent Boult, Doug Bracewell and Tim Southee helped New Zealand beat Sri Lanka by 167 runs. England, powered by a new captain, two fine spinners and a modern genius won by ten wickets on a home-made pitch, and South Africa, well... in spite of some irrelevant slogging at the end, beat the Aussies by 309 runs. It could easily have been 400.

The last of those was perhaps the most significant because it signifies to me the coming of age of the best South African team since their readmission in 1991. If everyone is fit, South Africa will play Graeme Smith (8569 runs at 49.53), Alviro Peterson (1387 at 40.79), Hashim Amla (5323 at 50.69), Jacques Kallis (12980 at 56.92 to go with 282 wickets at 32.57). AB de Villiers (5894 at 49.11), Francois du Plessis (293 in two Tests), JP Duminy (789 at 37.57), Robin Peterson (194 at 24 and 20 wickets at 33), Vernon Philander (267 at 21 and 67 wickets at 17.98), Dale Steyn (834 at 14 and 299 wickets at 23.79), and Morne Morkel (649 at 13.8 and 164 wickets at 30.20)

It is a staggering line-up, with the batting fit to compare to any in the last 30 years, and the pace attack is quite the best in the world at the moment. They field brilliantly and have an extraordinary athlete as wicketkeeper. If there is a weak link at all, it is with spin. Imran Tahir was never going to be the wristspinner they craved, though Peterson is a worthy trier. But with a fair degree of instability with other contenders, South Africa look good enough to keep their No. 1 status longer than any of the other recent holders of that distinction.

And it is a team of varying personalities. Smith is secure as Test captain, scores his share of runs, and you realise with a bit of a start, given how long he has been around, that he is still only 31. It is not inconceivable that he could have his best years ahead of him. As could four other batsmen in that line-up. Amla, surely at the height of his powers, is 29, du Plessis is 28, Duminy is that age too, as is the man I believe is the most remarkable cricketer in the world today, de Villiers. If Kallis can give them two more years and 20 overs a game, they could rule for long.

South Africa's is a staggering line-up, with the batting fit to compare to any in the last 30 years, and the pace attack is quite the best in the world at the moment

In two matches in Australia we saw two completely different facets to de Villiers. Battling to save the game in Adelaide, he batted 220 balls without a boundary for 33. The runs were insignificant compared to the approach. And then in Perth the natural strokeplayer in him emerged and 169 came from 184 balls. Very few players in the modern game can switch roles with such ease. Remember, he has only recently started keeping wicket in Test cricket - and he does that as well as anyone else. Before that he easily found a place in a list of the best fielders in the world. At the IPL this year he produced one of the most stunning displays of inventive batting I have ever seen. Against Dale Steyn steaming in. De Villiers is some cricketer!

Allan Donald thinks this is the best pace attack South Africa have had since readmission, and even if that is the view of a doting elder brother, the attack is still the best in the world at the moment and a handful on any surface. In the modern era a bowler who takes wickets at less than 25 per is rare. South Africa have two in Steyn and Philander, and Morkel could well be embarking on the best phase of his career. While Kallis can no longer crank those muscles up to deliver 140kph, he is still sharp over short spells, which is really all that South Africa need.

I still believe Donald himself at his peak, with Shaun Pollock, a young Kallis and Lance Klusener might outperform this bowling line-up, especially since Pat Symcox or Paul Adams might have provided better spin support. But this team outbats even as distinguished a side as Gary Kirsten, Herschelle Gibbs, Daryll Cullinan, Kallis as he was at the turn of the century, Hansie Cronje and Jonty Rhodes. Yes, this has to be the best.

And meanwhile Test cricket continues to bloom, as I write this after day one of the Test in Kolkata where for six hours bat and ball were locked in the kind of contest no other sport can provide.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jon on December 10, 2012, 22:12 GMT

    @Sosokiller- just do it first and then you can start making claims. SA are the best side in world cricket at present I am not questioning that. But talks of legacies and domination for 5 years is ridiculously premature. All I am saying is I would back Pakistan to beat SA if they played them right now in the UAE. And unestionably there is little depth. I mean say Steyn gets injured. You bring in who? Kleivledt (trash), Langaveldt (talented but all over the place) who else? SA are playing good cricket and deserve the no 1 spot. Like a previous commenter stated it is easy to make proclamations whilst at the top. It is a very different challenge to stay there. SA are only two injuries away from being the run of the mill avergae side. Just look at Adelaide and the attack without big Vern (class act).

  • Soso on December 10, 2012, 9:14 GMT

    When SA defeated England to become no.1 we beat them at full strength twice with no injuries, in their backyard no less. Thats how you should become no.1, so for Australians to feel hard done by is ridiculous. They had a chance to win against a depleted South African team they could not, end of story. As soon as we played at close to our full strength we blew them out the park. "South Africa defeated a 2nd string Aussie team", please, Siddle and Ben were not injured, they were "rested". Again a depleted SA side drained the life out of them, when they tried to bowl us out. Hall mark of a no.1 side, Australia threw everything at us, and have nothing to show for it. How do they deserve to be no.1, and how did they not manage a win against an injurie plaugged SA side when they were so "dominant". Having a couple of good sessions is hardly dominating a match/series.

  • Soso on December 10, 2012, 8:55 GMT

    "South Africa were dominated in the 1st two test" LOL, really? 1st and foremost we lost two players in 1 in the 1st test in JP. Not only was he suppose to bat, but he was required to bowl Tahir for share of overs. He could have scored a 50/100 we will never know. But its safe to assume with his current form he could have at least faced 120-150 balls, thats 20 overs plus. That would have detered Australia from declaring before tea on Day 5 at the very least. Again in the 2nd test we were 3 player short, Kallis the bowler, and Kallis the batsmen. Steyn was injured at some point, lets not forget our best bowler of the last year i.e. Philander (thats 4 players in 3). To think to the contrary would be foolish.

  • Soso on December 10, 2012, 8:42 GMT

    There is also a lot of noise about "depth" here. What? "If Steyn gets injured" this "if Kallis gets injured" that, whats that got to do with anything?

    If Cook and KP gets injured who does England have on the wings? If Clarke and Hussey who does Australia have?

    Again this is not a great team, they are a good one, the best in the world at the moment. Depth has nothing to do

  • Soso on December 10, 2012, 8:35 GMT

    @jb633 i'm sorry but what? "who will take wickets for SA in the subcontinent?" doesnt Dale Steyn have his best bowling figures from the flat roads of the subcontinent? South Africa also beat Pakistan in Pakistan and drew in the UAE, having faced the likes of Ajmal etc. whom England had no clue whatsoever. Take off your rose tinted glasses mate, this is by no means a great side but, they are a bloody good one.

  • Harsh on December 10, 2012, 6:27 GMT

    It would have been a fascinating contest seeing the current South African team take on the 1969-70 team with the likes of Barry Richards,Graeme Pollock and Mike Procter.I would back that team to win but the present side would give it a run for their money with their great balance in batting and bowling.Kallis v.Procter would have been a great duel,but sadly Kallis hardly bowls now.

    To prove themselves as a great team this Proteas side must continuously dominate cricket all over the world to successively win test series.Often it has faltered after reaching the top but this time history did not repeat itself.It may not have as many all-rounders as Hanse Cronje's side but has a better middle order batting line up,a more balanced bowling attack and above all more mental resilience.England's recent win in India shows that South Africa's series win in England last summer was truly a great achievement.

  • Dummy4 on December 10, 2012, 5:24 GMT

    I dont think anything can be as staggering as Greenidge, Haynes, Richards, Gomes, Lloyd, Richardson / Logie, Dujon, Marshall, Garner, Holding, Roberts. More so when you consider who missed out. Kalicharan, Rowe, Clarke, Croft, Daniel or aged out (Fredricks).

  • paul on December 10, 2012, 1:46 GMT

    @Marko Geldenhuys I personally think SA deserve to be No1, much the same way England was because they've been consistent and put together some decent wins the past 2 years, anyone who says different has an agenda. I also think that they won't stay there long, I see the top spot changing hands for a couple of reasons, when other sides hit a run of good form and also the Tour schedule can have a impact on rankings. SA have probably been a better away team than a home one in recent years, where they've only won 1 series at home in the last 4 years all the rest draws or a loss. You obviously lack a good spinner and some tested back up seamers. Got to say I was shocked how poor you was in those first couple of tests against a very average Oz side but you turned up in the end and if there was a right time to play England you certainly picked it, with their inability to catch dollies from SA batsmen and dressing room problems, not taking anything away mind

  • David on December 9, 2012, 18:38 GMT

    @ jonesy2 & Hammond. RE: 2012 South Africa tours of England & Australia. SA won - period. Aus won NOTHING. They did NOT smash SA - they could not manage a single win. Eng too won NOTHING. The only teams who were smashed were Australia and England - they each received a thorough thrashing from SA.

    The records of cricket show only Wins, Draws and Losses. The only team recorded as "WINNING" is South Africa. The only teams recorded as "LOSING" are Oz and England. There are no records for tired bowlers, or Pietersengates, or any of the endless list of "ifs and buts" that have been so tediously trotted out by disbelieving hardcore Eng & Oz fans. All the whinging & whining changes nothing. The records stand - South Africa won.

    Hammond predicted Eng would win. jonesy2 predicted Oz would win. Both were 100% wrong. Today, both predict the imminent & continued superiority of their favoured teams. Both predictions will be proved wrong. Again.

    SA won, and are number 1. Reality. Get over it.

  • Dummy4 on December 9, 2012, 8:48 GMT

    Some of you guys are having a good laugh. South Africa are by some distance the best team in the test arena. As some point out, the depth is worrying in both batting and bowling department. As the article clearly points out, at full strength SA are the best team. Speculating about Kallis retirement is pointless. Another thing, "Du Plessis had a good innings against 3 exhausted bowlers." Don' be ridiculous. His 1st 3 innings were in test cricket was over 50. One over 100. He came into the Adelaide 2nd innings with SA 4 down and Australia had not even bowled a full session. Why were they so exhausted??? They became exhausted because he batted well and for a very long period of time.

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